Tehran ponders on Riyadh reshuffle

95305_380The succession in Saudi Arabia has sent strong ripples round the Tehran media. Conservative and reformist commentators alike have suggested the assumption of the throne by Salman, after the death of his 90-year-old half-brother Abdullah on 23 January, will bring problems for Iran.

Although he turned against Iran’s key ally Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, and never reconciled to Iran’s growing role in Iraq after the 2003 United States invasion, King Abdullah for much of his reign pursued stable diplomatic relations with Iran, especially during the 1990s when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was president.
Iran Diplomacy, a site belonging to Sadeq Kharazi, Iran’s former Paris ambassador and an influential pragmatist, has run a piece predicting a new chill in relations, with the new constellation of leaders in Saudi Arabia opting to exert further pressure on the Islamic republic. Iran Diplomacy highlighted Saudi leaders with a “totally anti-Iran outlook”, including Saud Al Faisal, the foreign minister expected to retain his position in a new administration.
In an interview with Iran Diplomacy, analyst Sabah Zangineh said intelligence and military interests in Saudi Arabia were not enthusiastic over easing tensions between the two nations. Amir Mousavi, the reformist head of Iran’s Centre for Strategic Research, told the Voice of Iranians site that King Abdullah’s death was a blow to Iran. He said the “vultures of Riyadh” had close connections with militant Salafis and would only increase their antagonism with Iran and Iraq’s Shia population. “If current trends continue,” he warned, “times will be tough for Iran, Syria, and Iraq.”

More conservative political commentators share this assessment. Young Journalists Club, a site connected to the official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, predicted Saudi Arabia would not change its generally adversarial approach toward Iran.

Difference between mainly Shia Iran and mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia have been exacerbated by the sectarian dimension of civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and by ongoing unrest and protests in Yemen and Bahrain. The conservative site 895 highlighted these conflicts as responsible for poor relations between the two nations in recent years, and said that the new Saudi government would only stoke tensions. The site predicted the new Saudi government would be even less flexible over Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas, Iraq, and Yemen.
Despite this broad media consensus, Iran’s political leaders retain hope that Iran-Saudi relations can improve. Both president Hassan Rouhani and Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Council, sent personal condolences to the Saudi ruling family, although Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, did not. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, made an official visit to Saudi Arabia to offer condolences, and a few days later he hoped the opportunity for increased engagement would soon emerge.

Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the deputy foreign minister responsible for Arab and African affairs, called Zarif’s visit a “pivotal moment” in bilateral relations. He said that Iran was optimistic about the future and that he looked forward to positive steps from the Saudi government. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), also stressed Iran’s readiness for direct talks with Saudi Arabia over a range of issues, perhaps the strongest signal sent by the Islamic Republic that it wants to repair diplomatic relations.

When Shamkhani, who is an ethnic Arab, was appointed as secretary of the SNSC in 2013, the Saudis lauded him as the “architect” of improved Iran-Saudi relations. At the time, political commentators observed Shamkhani’s appointment showed Rouhani’s commitment to better relations. But the president’s feelers towards the Saudis have yet to bear fruit.

This article originally appeared in the UK’s The Guardian newspaper

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